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Saddle up: Riding Utah's Red Rock Canyon trails

PANGUITCH, Garfield County — Zeus flipped his long, black mane like a million-dollar model and pranced for all he was worth. I smiled as I watched the other horses in our party dance down the dirt road leading to the Thunder Mountain Trail and call to each other.

"This is why we ride horses in the mountains," I thought to myself, "to be in a place too breathtaking to describe, with animals we can only communicate with through body language."

Riding a horse requires listening with all of your mind and heart. Trust, time, love and joy are the cornerstones of this relationship, and any attempt to cheat or cut corners will only undermine your own relationship and experience. I am relatively new to horse ownership, but I have discovered very quickly the lure of riding a horse in the mountains. No two rides are ever the same, even when you travel the same path. Every day it changes — new animals, new sounds and, my personal favorite, new smells — bless riders who venture into the mountains from the Wasatch Front to southern Utah.

That's why, despite my novice status aboard a horse that's much smarter than myself, I agreed to help Deseret News photographer Tom Smart with his desire to feature Utah's Red Canyon trails and campgrounds for our readers.

"Red Canyon is Utah's best-kept secret," said Rusty Rich, a 26-year-old native of the area whose family runs the Bryce Canyon Pines Motel and Red Canyon Trail Rides. ( and

Red Canyon is located in the Dixie National Forest along Scenic Byway 12. It's about nine miles from Bryce Canyon and looks an awful lot like Bryce. In fact, Red Canyon is like a mini-Bryce nestled in the Dixie National Forest. This combination makes for some spectacular scenes.

Imagine wildflowers, three or four different types and colors, growing on a red rock ledge. A few hundred yards later, you're surrounded by Ponderosa pines, junipers and Douglas fir. Overhead is a clear, blue sky marred only by birds that draw your attention away from the trail up into the vastness of the beauty that surrounds you for hundreds of miles.

As we rode along the trails — of which there are about 50 miles for horses, mountain bikers and hikers — that dipped and climbed through Red Canyons' hills and cliffs, I had a hard time not repeating myself.

"Look at that!" I exclaimed, pointing out whatever it was that had pulled my attention to it this time. "Isn't that amazing!"

In some places, words really do fail a person.

Rich's grandfather, Mayo Rich, actually created the trails that help riders canvass the backcountry. One of the trails is named for Rich and another for infamous outlaw Butch Cassidy, who had a still-difficult-to-find hideout in Red Canyon. Rich is the third generation to take visitors through the trails his grandfather blazed in the 1950s and '60s.

"Most of our riders have never been on a horse before," he said. "My grandfather was a science teacher, so we talk a lot of geology and history of the area."

Having help navigating the area isn't necessary, but it is helpful — especially for those new to the area and horseback riding.

"Red Canyon is rough," he said of how Cassidy could elude law enforcement by riding into the area. "It's very historical and one of the best-kept secrets in the area. We do a lot of private rides and a lot of trail rides up to the hideout."

We rode with Rusty and Joe Rechsteiner, the recreations manager for the Powell Ranger District of the Dixie National Forest. He oversees the recreation programs, including horseback riding and camping in the forest. About 15 years ago, officials set up a trailer in Red Canyon to assist visitors in navigating the area.

In 2004, the Park Service opened a new visitor center that has become a very popular draw for tourists looking for something a little different and even a little less crowded than Bryce.

The area has 37 campgrounds, including four set up specifically for campers with horses. In the regular campgrounds, there are showers, flushing toilets and grills. Hitching posts at the horse campsites allow campers to tie up horses at night, or they can do as Tom did and set up a temporary, very cool corral with a portable electric fence. Outhouses make the trails very hospitable, along with a plethora of maps that will assist explorers in finding exactly what they're looking for in the craggy canyons.

After setting up camp, which was more secluded and spacious than a regular campsite, we saddled up and went out for a ride in Losee Canyon. It was the perfect start to what would turn out to be an incredible three days of camping and riding.

I had two favorite scenes on the rides.

The first was riding across a ridge on the Thunder Mountain Trail that was bordered by a Hoodoo. The wind-carved red rock stood like a statute on the side of the trail with the valley on the other side of riders. As we rode across, the sky was dark, threatening to rain, and there was a cool, intermittent wind. No one talked as we crossed the trail next to the Hoodoo the first time. It was unlike anything I've ever experienced.

Second was on the third day, when Rusty Rich led us along Cassidy Trail. After a series of climbs through desert red sand and craggy rocks, we entered a small grove of trees. It was amazing to see how much green could grow out of the dusty red stand. There were even rocks streaked with minerals peeking out of the green covering most of the ground.

Rich is used to people gasping and gaping as he leads them along the trails.

"I love being out here," he said. "Most people are taken with how red it is. It got its name for a reason. That and the blue skies. These views are beautiful."

Rusty led us out on a ledge that allowed us to see Highway 12 and the valley beyond it. Crows circled and dove into the trees around us and on the opposite the rolling hills of the valley stood the Red Rocks, a seemingly incompatible and odd pairing. It was spectacular and the perfect finish to a trip that reinforced just what a diverse and stunning place Utah really is.